The Nacirema, till now most famous for their unusual body rituals, are also quite well known for their political rituals; especially the unusual way they choose their headman.* Whereas many traditional societies choose their headman based on his demonstrated ability at skills related to the survival of the community, the Nacirema have chosen instead to hold a public contest, called an etabed.
In order to understand the etabed, it is first necessary to understand the patron-client relations underlying Nacirema power relations. Patrons, all of whom live in a specially designated neighborhood outside the current headman’s domicile, form a special council which then meets in advance of the etabed to select both the contestants and the rules of the contest. These rules are specially designed, like Trobriand Cricket matches (in which the home team is always the winner), to give the appearance of a contest despite the ritual nature of the spectacle.
Which is not to say that the winners and losers are pre-determined. Quite the contrary. Despite the scripted nature of the contest, the two contestants must maintain a demeanor which projects their virility without seeming too aggressive. Any failure to achieve this delicate balance will result in a loss of face for the contestant. Too aggressive and they will be considered incapable of remaining calm under pressure. Even worse, they may also be considered “rude.” On the other hand, being too passive or polite will make them seem lacking in passion as well as displaying insufficient concern for the wellbeing of their patrons.
One of the strangest aspects of the whole contest is that the winner or loser is not determined simply by the performance of the two men, but by a special class of purohits who are beholden to the same patrons as the two contestants. Even though many watch the etabed itself, popular sentiment is still largely determined by these purohits, who compete amongst themselves to weave the most convincing narrative as to why the contestant supported by their patron was the true victor.
- Till now, no woman has risen to this position. Although the rules don’t specifically prohibit participation by women, the nature of the contest makes it difficult for women to compete.